#688: Sudden Death (1932) by Freeman Wills Crofts

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Today, three previously very hard to find novels by Freeman Wills Crofts are republished by HarperCollins: Death on the Way (1932), The Loss of the ‘Jane Vosper’ (1936), and Man Overboard! (1936).  September will add Mystery on Southampton Water (1934), Crime at Guildford (1935), and Sudden Death (1932) to that, bringing the total of Crofts’ works in ready circulation up to twenty.  I have no idea why they’re being published out of order, and frankly I don’t really care — it’s mainly just delightful to see him getting some traction — and I wanted to celebrate by continuing my broadly chronological reading of Crofts with this, the first of his which ever came to my attention.

The plot sees young, sensible Anne Day appointed amidst Depression-hit job market — “with the unemployment figures standing where they were, to be out of a job was terrifying” we’re informed — as housekeeper for Severus Grinsmead and his wife Sibyl at their Kent home.  It will be Anne’s job to take over the management of the household from the sickly Sibyl, and Anne is wise to the need to improve, if improvement is needed, carefully: “the lady wouldn’t appreciate too glaring a commentary on her own administration… Anne would have to walk warily and not be in a hurry to make changes”.  And, aside from an omni-directional coldness from Sibyl, the job and conditions are better than Anne could have ever hoped…but, since Crofts has a habit of HIBKing his female protagonists — c.f. The Starvel Hollow Tragedy (1927) — we know something bad is on the way:

[H]ad she known all that awaited her at Ashbridge, she might well have drawn back in dismay, preferring the known humiliation of the scullery maid’s job to the agonies of fear and horror and suspense which she was fated to endure with the Grinsmeads.

So when a body turns up in a room that is bolted from the inside, and when a canny coroner is unconvinced that the apparent suicide is the correct conclusion, cue Scotland Yard in the shape of Inspector Joseph French.

Since the first third of the book is spent getting to know the denizens of the house before French takes over, there’s an argument that Sudden Death is the first country house mystery of that stalwart gentleman’s literary career (Crofts had one prior on his resume with The Ponson Case (1921)).  That the crux of this matter revolves around a closed circle howdunnit and whodunnit, rather than the meticulous and far-ranging investigations with which Crofts (and, in-universe, French) had become so very highly respected for gives the whole thing a smaller, more intimate feel that highlights once again how committed Crofts was to ringing the changes from book to book.  To see French fraternising with our suspects from the off, essentially fulfilling a sort of Hercule Poirot or Roger Sheringham rôle, sort of tickled me, though I appreciate others won’t pick up on this without the context of the previous books.

Of course, it’s not a complete volte face — there will be the checking of alibis (but your Poirots do that, too…) and promising clues which peter out to nothing, and we’ll dig into the Rogues’ Gallery of French’s brother officers in rustling up the delightful, technically-minded Sergeant Ormsby for more shenanigans — but it feels like we get to spend a little more time with French and get to know him a little better: his absurdly functional reduction of Sherlock Holmes’ most famous axiom is as brilliantly dull as you’d expect, but the Alice in Wonderland reference is very relatable, and we elsewhere get to see a little of the romance in his soul:

It always impressed him, the gentle beginning of a snowstorm.  It seemed to him a model of how a symphony should begin: a faint, high-pitched melody from some soft instrument, wavering uncertainly down from the ceiling, being joined by instrument after instrument, till at length the entire orchestra, with strength and decision, was thundering out some striking theme.

The locked room death — for ’tis murder — is solved by about the two-thirds point (‘ware flipping ahead, there are diagrams), just in time for a second death in a locked study, and off we go again.  And this is where things get especially interesting, because in his discussions with the local man after each death, I’m going to suggest that Sudden Death supplies us with a Locked Room Lecture that predates that of The Hollow Man (1935) by John Dickson Carr and provides a similarly dazzling array of options for how to murder someone in a room and make it appear sealed.  Crofts is less showy about it, but read this in September and tell me I’m wrong.

Sudden Death StratusThe methods are…perfectly fine, even if the first is arrived at rather more by intuition that detection (being technical, and very cleverly so, French “sees” the answer because Crofts knows it) and the second…well, here’s the thing.  The second is familiar, but given the care gone into with that Lecture, is there a chance that no-one had done this before?  Possibly not, you’ll probably be shouting obvious predated examples at me, but it has enough nice touches (the use of the encyclopedia is especially inspired) to pass, and I’d like to think well of it.  You can certainly see why French is more comfortable with empirical evidence than the psychological, and it may be from this that the erroneous claim of “Crofts is all about timetables” which so irritates me rises, but you can’t fault the man for trying.

Of historical interest, the fleeting references to the Depression aside, it’s interesting to note that the suggestion of Severus Grinsmead’s mother being “very old” is shot down because “she doesn’t look more than sixty”, and if a novel set in 1932 but written post-1960 had similarly referred to the old dear as being “as hard as nails” I’d’ve assumed it was a disgustingly lazy anachronism.  In a slightly bland cast of characters, Anne stands out, too, for her agency and common sense: dismissing the blowhard Bolsover beautifully in her own mind, and picking up on a key piece of evidence along the way to solving the second crime (for, hey, ’tis also murder).  You also have to wonder if Crofts leaving one (very, very slight) aspect of the final solution unknown — and telling you he’s doing so — is an attempt at genre verisimilitude, since for a man of his technical mind it would be thoroughly possible for him to have devised some explanation, surely…

So, after nearly 20 years of waiting, Sudden Death does not disappoint.  Quite apart from the two locked room murders, it’s simply wonderful to see Crofts applying himself to new wrinkles in the detection novel, and the man’s industry is to be celebrated.  This will be a great addition to the ranks of classic crime reprints with which we’re currently blessed, and it’s going to be wonderful to finally have the chance to actually discuss this without people having to fork out absurd sums for the privilege (I was lucky, and didn’t pay too over the odds for my House of Stratus edition, shown above).  Here’s hoping it’s simply one of many still to come.

Inspector French 2020

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See also

Curtis @ The Passing Tramp: Crofts himself thought enough of Sudden Death that he turned it into a play, writing for advice his friend Dorothy L. Sayers, who had staged Busman’s Honeymoon as a play in December 1936 (later reversing Crofts’ process by adapting it as a novel).  Crofts’ play was performed under the title Inspector French twice in 1937, first in July by the Otherwise Club near Guildford at the Barn Theatre (where, regrettably, a bat flitting around the barn distracted the audience’s attention from the play); and second in October, by the Guildford Repertory Company.

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Freeman Wills Crofts reviews on The Invisible Event:

The Standalones

The Cask (1920)
The Ponson Case
(1921)
The Pit-Prop Syndicate (1922)
The Groote Park Murder (1923)

Featuring Inspector Joseph French

Inspector French’s Greatest Case (1924)
Inspector French and the Cheyne Mystery (1926)
Inspector French and the Starvel Hollow Tragedy (1927)
The Sea Mystery (1928)
The Box Office Murders, a.k.a. The Purple Sickle Murders (1929)
Sir John Magill’s Last Journey (1930)
Mystery in the Channel, a.k.a. Mystery in the English Channel (1931)
Sudden Death (1932)
Death on the Way, a.k.a. Double Death (1932)
The Hog’s Back Mystery, a.k.a. The Strange Case of Dr. Earle (1933)
Antidote to Venom (1938)
Young Robin Brand, Detective (1947)

22 thoughts on “#688: Sudden Death (1932) by Freeman Wills Crofts

  1. Unfortunately I did fork out an insanely high sum (the most I have ever spent on a book) for this one all of a week before the reprint was announced. I still think someone got wind of the news. I keep reminding myself that it was half the price of the average copies floating around at the time. Nice to know it isn’t a bust – indeed it sounds really quite interesting, particularly the lecture-like part. I look forward to reading it at some point soon (I have neglected Crofts of late!).

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    • The same thing happened to me with Derek Smith’s Whistle Up the Devil — after finally, finally finding a copy (for, admittedly, a not ridiculous amount of money) the Locked Room International reprint was announced about two weeks later. But, thankfully for both of us, they’re great books, and how the genre off at close to its best. So you’d want two copies anyway, wouldn’t you? 🙂

      It’s going to be interesting hearing people’s thoughts on the locked room lecture: it clearly predates the Carr one, and is surely only under-discussed because so few people have had a chance to read this book. The fact that Crofts wasn’t a specialist in impossibilities perhaps contributes to his being overlooked, too, but the diversity of possibly solutions he discusses makes for interesting reading.

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      • This happened to me in reverse with Berkeley’s Jumping Jenny. A day after ordering, or pre-ordering, the Langtail Press reprint, I came across a bookstall with a dirt cheap (1 euro) Green Penguin edition. So that order was quickly canceled.

        Some of the rarities on my shelves have since returned to print, but the only one that stings a little is Anthony Wynne’s The Silver Scale Mystery (Murder of a Lady). From all the rare, long out-of-print Wynne novels they could have brought back in print, they picked the most expensive title on my shelves. Thanks BL!

        Anyway, you certainly succeeded in whetting my appetite and the locked room lecture, predating The Hollow Man, has me intrigued.

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        • As the converse to your experience, I paid more than was strictly sensible for Obelists Fly High by C. Daly King, only to read it and fervently hope that it’s never reprinted so that no-one else wastes their time or money on it 😄

          And “lecture” is stretching it, but there’s definitely an examination of the possibilities which is a more Croftian form of Locked Room Lecture — typically downplayed, of course, and full of rigour in its considerations. Twenty years from now, when it’s held up as the pioneer of its form, I want the credit for being the one to recognise it…!

          Really looking forward to what you make of this, TC. There are better locked room novels out there, but it’s a fun time — and with your previous enjoyment of Crofts I’m confident it’ll be right up your alley.

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          • Not much of a case of over-paying, but still a sad tale: I recently purchased Neck and Neck by Leo Bruce for $6 (with shipping), and then moments after checking out stumbled upon a Leo Bruce four pack featuring Case With No Conclusion, Cold Blood, Case Without a Corpse, and… Neck and Neck – all for the bargain basement price of $8. I had to buy it of course since I didn’t have the three other books. So, yeah, somebody’s getting Neck and Neck for Christmas…

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            • Same thing happened with me back when I was starting Edmund Crispin — bought Gilded Fly new, then found a set of his first 5 or 6 books for a good price. Can’t remember what happened to that extra copy, it’s possibly still kicking around somewhere…

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      • Yeah, I suppose. It was very silly money though and easily the most I have ever paid for a book. *sighs*
        These new editions are gorgeous though and look so beautiful on the shelf. The ridiculous thing is I’ll probably be importing paperbacks of each of these reissues later in the year…
        I will be really curious what you make of his other locked room story. I was really impressed when I read that (though the locked room bit is really just a very short 30 or so pages in the middle of the book) which was part of the reason I was so desperate to get my hands on this one!

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        • I’m looking forward to Andrew Harrison, too, but mainly because I’m looking forward to everything of Crofts’ that I haven’t read — these impossibilities are a nice touch, but Crofts is about so much more than just that element.

          I was interested to note, and forgot to mention, that the American edition of this was a sealed mystery, with the final pages needing to be “freed” in order to read them. Given that the first locked room was solved well before then, this increases my belief that the trick used here might be,if not exactly original, certainly less shopworn than the modern reader might imagine

          Curiouser and curiouser…

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  2. My copies of the newest releases should be winging their way to me as we speak! Then September to look forward to. Will there be a Christmas miracle also?

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    • I dunno if Crofts ever set a novel at or around Christmas, but it would certainly be a good opportunity to publish another one, eh? And don’t forget that there’s a collection of previously un-corralled stories — The 9:50 Up Express and Other Stories — due out…at some point.

      2020 doesn’t seem so bad after all, eh?

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      • French for Christmas would make my year, but that’s probably asking too much. Is their plan to reprint all of his works, or is this merely for the centenary?

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        • I have no insight, I’m afraid, but it would be lovely if these sold well enough for more to follow. It’s also possibly in part motivated by the Inspector French TV show Curtis talked about a little while ago — greater visibility for the character would result in interest in the books, so maybe they’re getting in ahead of time to ensure some are available (assuming, of course, the show happens/hasn’t been cancelled/etc).

          Whatever the motivation, I’m delighted to see them released…all we need to do now is get them to sell. And then maybe more GAD reprints by other authors will also result 🤞

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  3. I look forward to a wave of reviews based on your comments. This is definitely going on the wish list. Remind me – doesn’t Crofts have at least one other impossible crime novel? Maybe The End of Andrew Harrison/The Futile Alibi (which for some reason I took down a note to buy)?

    It’s great seeing these books becoming accessible. I’ve been hunting for reasonably priced Crofts books for a while and it’s just close to impossible aside from the British Library releases. Plus, these HarperCollins covers are great – not the pinnacle of the form, but close to as good as it gets for a modern reprint.

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    • My understanding is that Andrew Harrison/Futile Alibi features an impossible crime, yes, though I believe it’s less well-regarded than Sudden Death. As much as I hope we get a reprint of all Crofts’ works, I especially want Andrew Harrison reprinted because my edition has seen much better days 😄

      These editions do look wonderful — the consistency of the branding and the variation of colours and story-specific illustrations are really smartly chosen. I got in touch with the artist, Mike Topping, to see if he’d be interested in doing a Cover Stars piece about them (I cling to the faint hope that there will be more Cover Stars at some point) but I think the corona situation has rather up-ended everyone’s plans.

      And 20 out of 38 books in print isn’t too shabby is it? For an author first published a century ago. Obviously we want more, but half of his stuff being readily available is a frank result for Crofts fans.

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        • It almost feels like the guy needs a warning at the front of his books: “The principles herein are dealt with in a very unshowy manner, but don’t conflate this with them not being good” 😆 😆

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          • You know, the unshowy showmanship of Crofts might be part of the reason why the current run of reprints have turned out to be such a success. Crofts was like a cool, level-headed surgeon who showed very little emotion, but used all his talent and skills to get you through. I can imagine that being a breath of fresh air to readers who don’t obsessively consume Golden Age detective fiction and are more familiar with the contemporary crime/thriller novels.

            If you told people on the old Yahoo mailing list or JDCarr forum in the early-to-mid 2000s that Crofts would not only find his way back to actual bookstores, but would be appreciated by people who are not exclusively GAD readers, they would have laughed in your face. Christie or Sayers? Sure. But not Crofts. After all, the House of Stratus reprints were already fading into obscurity as increasingly expensive collector items.

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            • You make a good point about the unshowy popularity of Crofts — I mean, if a minor plodder like John Bude can get seven (seven!) books to sell in sufficient numbers to justify reprinting him, there must be something about that style of fiction that appeals to a wider readership. I just hope these Crofts books sell in sufficient numbers to give the non-GAD fans a better sense of how good GAD can be. Meaning no offence to Bude, of course, but Crofts is vastly superior.

              The question then becomes: who’s next? What other languishing authors are going to prove popular enough with the non-obscurity-obsessed public? J.J. Connington, Henry Wade, Nancy Barr Mavity…? Place your bets!

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  4. I bought this ages ago – for all of £1! – and must put it on my TBRR list.

    BTW, given the rather attractive covers that were used for the House of Stratus reprints, I wonder why they decided on those bizarre “negative image” covers for their otherwise welcome Austin Freeman edition?

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    • I imagine the negative image pictures are just a matter of trying to be distinct in their series branding — I for one rather like them, and am relieved that they’re readily available in those versions even now. Given that so much (all?) of Freeman’s work is in the public domain, and that so many of the free editions or most PD books just slap a seemingly random copyright-free image on as a cover, I like that Stratus have taken the time to devise a distinct appearance for RAF’s stuff.

      I’m not such a fan of their edition of The House of the Arrow by A.E.W. Mason, alas — Nick Fuller recommended it to me, and theirs is the only extant printing I can find. Everything else is a “weirdly-formatted ebook with dodgy cover image” affair, and I’d prefer something at least moderately competent to read. So I may have to keep an eye out for a secondhand copy…but I don’t think I’ve ever seen any Mason in a secondhand shop. And it took me 18 months to find the appropriate Freeman, and I don’t know if I want to wait that long this time.

      All of which is ancillary to the matter in hand: yes, the style of cover for this HoS Crofts reissues are generally great. Sudden Death is possibly the weirdest, and the man on the cover of French Strikes Oil has simply HUGE trousers, but on the whole they represent possibly the best set of GAD reissue covers before the British Library came along.

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